Wednesday, 13 November 2013

On energy and elsewhere, ownership matters too

On energy and elsewhere, ownership matters too

Modern German politics is not known for it’s cliff-edge drama and ideological adventure, yet it’s capital city had a bit of both in the last few days. Last Sunday was polling day for a local referendum on whether to take Berlin’s energy grid into local democratic ownership, following a long-standing community campaign (Berliner Energietisch) to force the issue onto the ballot paper. Public anger at Vattenfall, the company that owns the grid and has long monopolised Berlin’s energy, helped it on its way.
In the end, a whopping 83% of votes cast were in favour of local ownership, though the poll came just short – by an excruciating 0.9% – of the strict voter turn-out rules imposed on local referendums, thus failing (somewhat grim vindication of spoiler tactics employed by CDU and SPD opponents to force voting-day into dark rainy November). Nevertheless this moment in German politics is worth a closer look, not least for how it can inform our own debates in the UK.
For a start, it’s not the first such campaign in the country – voters in Hamburg have already recently approved ‘communalisation’ along the same lines, as disaffection at privatisation grows. It also runs parallel with an even more impressive campaign run by local people in Berlin (B├╝rgerEnergie), separate to the vote and therefore still ongoing, to buy and run the grid themselves when the franchise comes up for renewal in 2014.
The scale and ambition of both Berlin citizen campaigns are stark. Both go beyond narrow party political lines, drawing in church groups, tenant organisations, welfare groups and the like. Both want to invest in Berlin profits from what is a natural monopoly, rather than see them siphoned off to shareholders. 
But crucially, both also offer an alternative not just to privatisation but more conventional top-down nationalisation too, which in many countries (including the UK) became overly-bureaucratic and unresponsive. Energietisch, for example, proposed that the board of the body set up by the local authority to run Berlin’s energy grid would be made up of 6 directly elected Berliners and 7 employees, with the other 2 seats reserved for the local energy officials. They also aimed to open the system up to low-power, small and medium sized renewable producers.
All of this is useful in expanding the horizons of our current national debate on energy, however much it has shifted in a progressive direction recently. It’s a reminder to keep thinking big. Ed Miliband deserves huge credit for getting our energy debate moving beyond the status quo, and he has been brave and commendable in his push for a price freeze, moving the centre-ground in a way his critics always said couldn’t be done. But there is still space to explore beyond even that (which the public would already permit, incidentally).
There is always going to be a limit to corralling private organisations into doing or not doing something. Are democratic ‘public options’ or co-operative alternatives, to undercut profiteering, realistic? Surely it’s worth exploring, as the Germans have started to do.
This goes beyond energy, too. In general Labour could be thinking a bit more about democratic alternatives to both privatisation and top-down old-style nationalisation, rather than just relying on the old levers like the tax system to influence private behaviour.
This could work in important areas of policy being strangled by private interests, such as city transport (regional authorities running train or bus services) or housing (local authority-run social lettings agencies, for instance, already exist but are in need of a bigger push – they are also self-financing beyond the initial start-up money). Employee reps on company boards are also a good start, meanwhile, but there is a huge amount more in that area that could be done to bring the voice of employees at the top of companies in the UK up to speed with the likes of Germany or Sweden (the 1977 Bullock report is a good place to start).
Beyond that, as a movement the left should arguably be doing more to encourage, foster and support the kind of genuine community movements that might want to make a bid to run a local service or utility, where the private sector is failing.
Such movements are not pipe-dream stuff, and while not mainstream they’re not as rare as you think. One already exists in Dover for instance, where local residents, businesses and port employees recently banded together to stave off privatisation of the local port, and are currently in talks to bring it under community control. Likewise, in football: a growing number of fans are starting groups aimed at part-owning their football club, the most prominent of which is Manchester United fans’ MUST. The legal and logistical barriers to these kind of groups forming and succeeding need to be interrogated at a national level.
Of course there are a hundred and one other competing priorities as the election draws near. So let’s at least set a realistic mid-term goal: it would be great to see a senior Labour figure give a speech on the kind of themes discussed above in the next six months.
Over the last few years, the party – and the left in general – has finally become comfortable and eloquent in talking about the limits of markets, or where they have broken and failed to deliver; now it’s time to take the German’s lead, and start discussing the role of new public alternatives in fixing things.